Studies show a significant gap between covered losses and actual losses due to winter weather.

Autumnal leaves are falling and the mornings greet us with a bracing chill. Winter is coming. For many high-net-worth individuals, homes in wintry climates can present extraordinary financial risks, from burst pipes in kitchens to ice damming at roof edges.

If your clients are retreating to their winter home (and thereby leaving their primary residence vacant or partly unattended), or if they are remaining in a cold climate during the winter months, a snowstorm or extremely frigid temperatures can create mayhem for homes unprepared for Mother Nature’s whims.

While the breadth of risks in frigid weather is remarkable, so are the many technologies that have been created in recent years to discern a lurking disaster. I recently spoke with Jeff Cline, principal at BCU Risk Advisors, for his winter risk perspective. BCU focuses exclusively on the risk management and insurance needs of affluent individuals and families.

Winter Worries

“The biggest issue I’ve seen with winterization is the need to prevent the intrusion of water into the home,” said Cline. “There are just so many ways that water can infiltrate the home, specific to winter conditions. When this occurs, the destruction can be substantial, from ruined interiors and damaged fine art to mold.”

One way water enters the home is through ice damming. Ice dams form when there is snow on the roof and the roof’s temperature is above freezing, but the outside temperature is below freezing. When the warm roof causes the snow to melt, the water runs down the edge of the roof and freezes, leading to a buildup, or dam, of ice and water. The water then backs up behind this dam, gradually leaking into the home.

To mitigate this risk, homeowners and caretakers should ensure that gutters are cleaned. Another option is to have heat tape or cable professionally installed along the gutter line. These hot wires also reduce the chance that metal roofs will tear or bend under the weight of heavy snow.

Weatherizing When Clients Are Away

HNW clients with winter homes should consider hiring a caretaker when blizzard conditions arise to ensure that snow accumulations on the roof, decks and elsewhere are removed quickly. The sheer weight of too much snow on the roof can buckle the structure. Most roofs can handle 20 pounds per square foot of snow, roughly four feet in depth. Two feet of old snow followed by two feet of new snow can weigh as much as 60 pounds per square foot.

If no one is at home to attend to this responsibility, it’s advisable for owners to retain the services of a snow removal company. “The provider can also ensure that all markers leading to the house are cleared of snow, in the dire case that firefighters or other first responders to a disaster must enter the premises and find the location,” Cline said.

Similarly, fire hydrants need to be marked with a visible flag with metal reflectors, as they can become buried under snow, he added. “And make sure all driveways and sidewalks are cleared of snow,” Cline cautioned. “It is the homeowner’s responsibility to ensure this is taken care of. If not, they may be liable for slip and fall injuries.”

For more affluent homeowners, a caretaker who lives on the premises or nearby can attend to these and other winter-related residential issues, as can a property manager. In either case, the person should check the house on a weekly basis, with a daily check recommended during bitterly cold temperature snaps.

Other loss prevention tips include winterizing the irrigation system, removing all hoses from exterior faucets and insulating the faucets and exterior pipes with foam, even if the manufacturer insists the materials used in the piping will not freeze. Inside the house, make sure to maintain a constant temperature that will not freeze interior pipes. Best practice is to keep the temperature at 65 degrees or higher to prevent freezing pipes.

Also close the crawl space vents, clear French drains by window wells, and trim trees and shrubs to limit debris. Make sure the attic is properly insulated and open cabinet doors under sinks and along interior walls to let the warmer air reach pipes.

What else? Shut off the main water valve, drain the faucets in sinks, tubs and showers, and then flush all the toilets. These actions reduce the volume of water remaining in interior pipes. “I’d also recommend securing the home from vermin and other small animals,” Cline said. “We had a wealthy client last winter whose home was invaded by raccoons that entered the premises through an opening in the soffit.”

Technology to the Rescue

Fortunately, a cottage industry of technology devices has sprung up in recent years to remotely attend to some of these needs.

Alarm systems, smoke detectors and carbon monoxide detectors are particularly important when homes are unattended. A similar device is a temperature monitor, which can wirelessly alert the homeowner or caretaker to unusually low temperatures, a precursor to freezing pipes. Many wealthy homeowners retain a service provider to centrally manage and monitor these various systems.

A newer remote device is designed to shut off water throughout the premises or in certain parts of the home during an emergency. Automatic residential shut-off valves sense the rate of flow within a water conduit to determine the possibility of a burst pipe. Within seconds, the water system shuts down and the homeowner or caretaker is informed of the issue.

The shut-off valves or “water bugs,” as they are called in the industry, are important even if the owner is at home. “We experienced a damage claim involving a toilet in an infrequently used bathroom that cracked from a nut that was too tightly screwed into the water supply line,” said Cline. “Several days had elapsed before the homeowner realized the water leak. “We recommend to our clients that they also consider the installation of separate water shut-offs for major appliances like washing machines and dishwashers.”

Another marvel is a siren-operated sensor (SOS), which opens the electronic gates to a home when a fire truck or other first responder blows a horn at a specific decibel.

What is great about many of these devices is that some insurers will provide premium discounts for their deployment and use. “In some cases, the insurance savings can offset the cost of buying and installing these systems,” Cline noted.

This is just an added benefit for frugal affluent families. The overarching objective is to be free of worries about the winter residence. Home is where the hearth is — even if it’s just part of the year.

— Read Home Automation: Gains in Efficiency but Risks Are Uncertain on ThinkAdvisor.